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Creating documents: a Practical Guide

Setting up

Setting up

Get your document right from the start! On this page, we'll explore different aspects of setting up a digital document, like sorting out your margins, page orientation and numbering, and any headers and footers. We'll also look at some tips when you're starting on a document, like file naming and saving and using keyboard shortcuts and view options.

Working with page setup

Before you get started with any new document, it's worth checking that the pages and sizing are set up as you need them. While it is possible to change any of these settings after you've added content, making changes can effect the layout of your text. Especially if you need to change page size, margin sizes or orientation, it's worth checking these before you get started.

We'll start this guide with some tips that help with the process of setting up and viewing your document, and ensure your work is saved and backed up.

Naming files and saving regularly

You may wish to spend a little time organising and checking that important documents are suitably named and backed up, to reduce the risk of losing or misplacing any documents.

One useful idea can be to come up with your own naming structure to help you easily identify files and their content. Where possible, try not to use very similar names and instead use descriptive names which help to identify what is in the document. You may wish to include a date, version number or anything else that helps to to identify a specific file. Once you've decided what information to include in a file name, you could put this information in the same standardised order for each file. This may make it easier to sort and find multiple files when they are stored in a folder together.

When using Microsoft Word, use the option at File > Save regularly while you are working on a document. You can also use File > Save As/Save a copy to save an additional, separate copy of a file as a backup. Storing Word files on a cloud storage service is also a safe way of ensuring all files are backed up and accessible from any device. University accounts don't have access to Microsoft's OneDrive storage, as we instead use Google Drive. For computers, you can install the Google Drive for Desktop tool to be able to save and sync your Word files directly in Google Drive. You can alternatively upload any Word files on the Google Drive website.

When you use Google Docs, these files are automatically saved in Google Drive and are accessible from any device. You can use the 'Move' icon (folder with an right pointing arrow) next to the document name to move this file into a suitable folder within your Google Drive.

Finding advanced page setup

Many of the advanced page setup options that allow full control are sometimes slightly hidden in advanced menus. Here's how to find those options when customising your document.

Word logo

For Windows users, look out for the small 'expand' icon (box with an arrow) which can be seen at the bottom left of many sections on the ribbon. For the advanced page setup, you can find this icon in Layout > Page Setup.

expand icon in the page setup section of the Layout tab in Word for Windows

For Mac, use the menu bar (while in MS Word) at the very top to go to Format > Document.... On this window, you may also need to use the Page Setup button to see some options like page orientation.

Format button on Word on a mac with the document option highlighted
Google Docs logo

All of the settings can be easily found on the menu bar in Google Docs. For page setup, go to File > Page Setup.

File menu in Google docs with page setup highlighted

Dark mode

If you prefer to work in 'dark mode' to help reduce glare and the amount of white on the screen, it is possible to turn this on in Microsoft Word.

Micrsoft Word ribbon in dark mode with black background

For Windows, in Microsoft Word go to File > Account. In the Office Theme, change this drop-down to 'Black', or another colour of your choice. This may very in some older versions of Word.

On a Mac, you will first need to enable dark mode in the operating system itself. To do this, go to the main Mac settings via Settings > General > Appearance > Dark. Then in Microsoft Word, from the top menu bar, go to Word > Preferences > General > Personalise, where you can set the page colour to be either white or black while in dark mode.

Viewing options

Both tools have a couple of viewing options that can make navigating and working with longer documents a little easier.

Word logo

On the View tab in Word, look in the 'Show' section. It can be useful to turn on the Ruler, which helps you to see the measurement and sizing of your page. The Navigation Pane quickly lists all of your headings after applying a heading style. This can be used to jump to a particular heading and see the structure of your document.

View tab with ruler and navigation pane ticked
View tab in Microsoft Word
Navigation pane in Word with exmaple headings and sub-headings
Navigation Pane
Google Docs logo

On the View menu, you can select Show Ruler to display a ruler across the top and sides. The Show document outline will display a navigation bar down the side of the document, listing all headings which have a heading style applied to them. These headings can be clicked on to jump to that section.

If you're using section breaks in your document, you can select Show section breaks to make it easier to see where these have been placed.

View tab in Google Docs with Show Ruler and Show document outline ticked
View tab in Google Docs
Example document outline
Document outline


Margins are simply the space between the edges of your text and the edge of the page. You can separately customise the top, bottom, left and right margins to be a different measurement, depending on what best suits for you or to fit with certain measurements you may have been given.

A page showing the margins around the edge

If you're changing the size of your margins, give yourself plenty of space all around. This includes the top and bottom where you may also be entering text in the Header and Footer. Try to set your margins to at least 1.5cm so that nothing gets cut off, especially if you are printing. It's possible to then save this page setup as a template, so you can use it again for other documents.


Writing an essay, dissertation or thesis? Check with your department or supervisor, to see if they have guidelines on what your margins sizes need to be.

Customising margins

From the 'Page Setup' menu on either tool, you can enter a specific measurement. The measurements for each margin may show in either centimetres or inches, but the unit of measurement can be changed in the options menu.

Word logo

Microsoft Word has some pre-set margins listed when you go to Layout > Margins. You will however usually want to set your own measurements exactly. Go to Layout > Margins > Custom Margins. This will show the full advanced page-setup menu. You can either use the up/down arrows to alter the measurement, or type in a specific number.

MS Word page setup box with margins set as 2.54cm
Google Docs logo

Go to File > Page Setup to set custom margins. From here, type in the measurement for each margin. You can also use the Set as Default button to automatically save these margin measurements for all new Google Docs that you create.

Page setup box in Google Docs

If you highlight a particular part in your document or use section breaks, you can then use the Apply to option to apply the formatting to just that selected area of the text instead. This can also be useful when you are trying to set certain pages as landscape orientation.

Double-sided printing

If you're creating a piece of writing that will be printed double-sided and bound together, you may need the 'inside' margin to be slightly larger to make space for any binding and to alternate from left-to-right on every other page. This is known as Mirrored Margins. By alternating on each page, it will make sure that the wider margin is always on the inside when there is text on both sides of the page.

You can do this in Microsoft Word, where you can set it it up to 'Mirror Margins'.

  1. In MS Word, go to the Layout tab.
  2. Go to Margins > Custom Margins .
  3. Change the 'Multiple pages' section to Mirror margins .
  4. You may notice that the margin measurement labels have now changed from left and right to 'Inside' and 'Outside'. The inside margin will be the edge closest to where the pages are bound together, so may need to be larger than the outside margin.

Headers and Footers

Headers and Footers are areas within the top and bottom margins where you can add additional information about the document, such as the title of the document or a page number. Anything you write in the header or footer on one page will appear automatically on every other page in that document or section.

So if we were to write 'My important document about cheese' into the header of the first page, that title would automatically appear on the top header of every other page in the document without needing to re-type it. You can enter any required information here and format them using the normal text-formatting tools. They can also be used for adding automatic page numbers, which will increase by 1 on each page.

Editing headers and footers

To edit a header or footer, first open the editing box before you can make any changes. While hovering your mouse over the blank space in your top or bottom margin (in either MS Word or Google Docs), double-click to open the header/footer editor.

Word logo

In Word, you can also access the header by going to Insert > Header > Edit Header (with the same process for the footer).

Header and footer menu in MS Word' button

An extra Header & Footer tab will appear across the top ribbon where you can control some of the options and insert page numbers. If you have a cover page or need to remove headers/footers from your first page, you can tick Different first page to prevent any information being shown there.

From the Header & Footer tab, choose Close Header and Footer before continuing to work on your document, or double-click back on the main body of your document.

Docs logo

In Google Docs, you can also access the editor by going to Insert > Headers and Footers.

While editing, a 'Header' or 'Footer' label will show you which one you are currently editing. Use the usual formatting options on the toolbar to set the font, sizing and alignment for your text.

Google Docs with Header editor open

Changing size or position

Word logo

You can change the position of the header and footer, to allow a little more white space between the footer and the edge of your document.

While editing your footer, go to the Header & Footer tab. In the 'position' section, use the Header from top and Footer from bottom options to alter the measurements. This will change the size of the space between the very edge of your page and where the text in your header/footer.

Google Docs logo

To change the positioning of your header or footer, go to Format > Headers and Footers. Then enter a measurement to increase or decrease the amount of blank space between the edge and your header or footer. The default size is usually around 1.27cm.

Automatic page numbers

Adding automatic page number into your header or footer will save you needing to manually type a page number for each page. As an extra bonus, it will also automatically update and save you from needing to manually tweak them if you decide to add extra pages or move content around.

Word logo

The option to insert page number appears on both the Insert or Header & Footer tabs. There are multiple options to chose the position and alignment of the page numbers. Choosing either of the 'top' or 'bottom' options will automatically put them in the header or footer of your document.

The insert page number option on the Header & Footer tab

You may need to change the format of your page numbers, like needing to use Roman numerals as one example. Double-click on your Header/Footer to edit it and then go to Header & Footer > Page Number > Format Page Numbers (or you can right-click on the page number itself). You can change the 'number format' option to change to different type of numbering. If it's the case that you need to change page numbering for different sections, you'll need to first use section breaks. See the 'Section Breaks' box on our Page Structure guide for more instructions.

Format Box numbers dialogue box in Word
Google Docs logo

Go to Insert > Page Numbers where you can then use the options to select the position. The two options on the right allow you to insert page number that automatically start on the second page, leaving the first page blank.

Selecting page numbers on the insert menu in Google Docs

To change the position or starting number of your page numbers, go to Format > Page Numbers. You can't automatically change the format of numbers in Google Docs (to Roman numerals etc), so you may need to either enter number manually or consider using Microsoft Word instead.

Different first page

You can prevent any text or page numbers in your header or footer appearing on the first page. This can come in handy when you need to create a front cover page that won't need any text or page numbers in the header or footer.

Word logo

Double-click on your header or footer to start editing it. On the Header & Footer tab, tick Different first page.

Google Docs logo

Double-click on the Header or Footer in your Google Doc. On the bar that appears just above or below, tick the Different first page option.


Template documents are really useful if you create multiple files that have the same customised text formatting and page setup. In this process, you will only need to configure the page setup, styles and formatting only once. After that, you can then re-use this every time you need to create a new file and it will save yourself needing to re-do the same setup. It's a really helpful method when you are writing chapters in separate documents that will eventually be combined into one.

Saving a template

Word logo

Microsoft Word has a specific template file type you can use to create a reusable template.

  1. Firstly, setup a blank document as you need. You can alter the sizes of margins, page setup and modify any Styles.
  2. Go to File > Save As (or Save a copy) > Browse.
  3. Change the 'Save as type' dropdown to Word Template.
  4. Select a location where you can easily navigate to that template file and press Save.

When you then need to create a new document, use your file browser to find the template file you saved. Click on this file to open it. This will create brand new file based on your template.

If you need to make any direct changes to your master template, use the method of going to File > Open and select the template file to edit it directly.

Google Docs logo

The easiest method for creating a personal template is to create a Google Doc, save it in your Google Drive and then use the option to make a copy whenever you need to make a new file:

  1. Create a new Google Doc. Click on the title on the top-left of the page to rename it. You may want to give it a name to identify it as your template master.
  2. Go to File > Move and put the template in a suitable folder.
  3. When you need to create a new file, navigate to the file on Google Drive. Right-click on the file and select Make a copy.

Have a quick check you have made a copy of the original before creating a new document. Giving your 'master' file a identifiable name that contains the word 'template' may help to prevent from accidentally editing your original template.

Page size and orientation

You can alter both the orientation and size of the pages you are working on. By default, a document is usually set to size A4, portrait. The two orientations you can choose are either Portrait (shorter across the top, longer down the sides) or Landscape (longer across the top, shorter down the sides).

If you are intending to print or work on a different page size or orientation, it's a good idea to set this up in the page setup options before you get started. It may help you to more easily layout your content and choose the most appropriate sizing.


Need to change orientation or sizing for a certain section? You'll first need to use section breaks, see our Page Structure guide for details on how to insert those first.

Page orientation

Word logo

To change the orientation from the whole document, you can go to Layout > Orientation.

It is also possible to set a different orientation for just a certain part or section of your document. This is usually done by first inserting Section Breaks above and below the selected pages. Then you will need apply this via the advanced page setup box by going to Layout > Margins > Custom Margins. Here you can set the orientation and use the Apply to drop-down to apply it to a particular section or highlighted text.

Google Docs logo

In Google Docs, page orientation can be set via Format > Page Orientation.

From here, you can choose the Apply to option to apply it to the whole document, some highlighted text, or a section (using section breaks).

Page size

By default, the standard page size for any new document you create is usually A4. If you are planning to print or create a document that's a different size, it's a very good idea to adjust the page size in the document setup. That way, everything added to the document will then be in proportion. You can select from standard page sizes (A2, A3, A5 etc) and in Word you also can enter your own custom dimensions.

Word logo

Go to Layout > Margins > Custom Margins > Paper (Windows) or Page Setup (Mac) > Paper size. Some standard paper sizes are listed. If you want to enter your own dimensions, scroll down to the bottom of the list and select Custom Size.

Google Docs logo

Go to File > Page Setup > Paper size. From this list, you can select some given paper and letter sizes with the largest being A3.


Setting up exercises

Once you've gone over the material on this page, try the following exercises to apply your knowledge:

  1. Change your document’s margins:
    Top & Bottom = 2.3cm, Left = 4cm, Right = 2cm.
  2. On the Header & Footer that appears, change the 'Footer from Bottom' to 1.2cm (so you can have more text on a page).
  3. Insert automatic page numbers in the footer.